- A good leader must constantly adapt and should have emotional and social skills.
- Our current unpredictable times ask for flexible leadership.
- Selfleadership means small, feasible changes that make the biggest and lasting changes in the long term.
The boss: every employee has an opinion on their boss. The press has recently been covering a lot of stories on (sometimes toxic) leadership. Not surprisingly, leadership is also the topic of a great deal of scientific research, including at the University of Antwerp. Is leadership an innate talent? Or can you learn it during your studies? Three experts highlight various aspects of leadership.
Founder and director of the NeuroTrainingLab, Steven Poelmans, professor of neuroscience and strategic leadership, studies the brains of managers. His research shows that successful leaders can switch between different leadership styles in a short period of time.
The world is changing rapidly, so we need to constantly reinvent ourselves, according to Professor Poelmans. The premise of his latest book Paradoxen van leiderschap (Paradoxes of Leadership) is: ‘To create a better world, we must become smarter than our former selves.’ But what makes someone a successful leader?
Searching for patterns
‘Each of us has a unique set of brains’, Poelmans begins. ‘That uniqueness is the result of very specific experiences in our lives.’ American neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux wrote in a previous study ‘we are our synapses’, by which he means that all the experiences we have are linked to emotions and attitudes. These form unique patterns in our brains.
‘But naturally, as scientists, we do look for patterns’, Poelmans continues. ‘And so we discovered that good leaders are, above all, remarkably adaptive.’ After all, a good leader not only deals with their employees, but they must also function cross-organisationally. They have to continuously adapt to different people and situations, so they should have cognitive, emotional and social complexity.
A good leader not only deals with their employees, but they must also function cross-organisationally.
After years of research, Poelmans discovered that these unpredictable times call for paradoxical leadership. ‘Even in similar situations, with the same person, an effective leader knows how to quickly switch from one leadership style to another, from a stern leader to a friendly, understanding leader. And that requires a lot of mental flexibility.’
Doesn’t that meant that you need to have a bit of a multiple personality to combine all those traits in one person? ‘Multiple personality disorder is obviously a condition and that's something good leaders can certainly do without’, Poelmans winks.
It turns out that being ambidextrous does have a real advantage. ‘Ambidextrous people, for example, are mostly found among people who play an instrument’, Poelmans knows. ‘The coordination between their right and left hemispheres is very good and they can quickly switch between two styles of thinking.’
‘Being ambidextrous is also an advantage for athletes. A great example of a high performance athlete is Rafael Nadal. He used to play tennis with his right hand but later in life he trained his best techniques with his left hand. Nadal is truly ambidextrous, and I think that explains why he is such an intelligent, creative player.’
Task- and relationship-oriented
According to Poelmans, there is one paradox that almost every leader must cope with: they must simultaneously keep their distance and connect, focus on tasks and on relationships. ‘You need to be able to solve matters with data and logic, but you also need to be able to empathetically connect with different people.’
There is one paradox that almost every leader must cope with: they must simultaneously keep their distance and connect, focus on tasks and on relationships.
Poelmans explores all this in his NeuroTrainingLab. ‘We subject managers and middle managers to an authentic simulation exercise and measure how often and how fast they switch mental states. Leaders who show brilliant results seem to switch every other second.’ Poelmans believes that people with different personalities can all be leaders in their own way.
And what percentage of all the managers Poelmans saw in his TrainingLab were actually good, successful leaders? ‘Some 15% of executives are “balanced” leaders, but only 3% are truly inspiring leaders who know how to connect with their people. Charismatic leadership encompasses the paradox of being very participative, very compassionate and willing to listen, while at the same time being determined and able to take decisions. The authoritarian leader as well as the empathetic coach – that is the essence of paradoxical leadership.’ Corona had a substantial impact on leadership, Poelmans noted. ‘Crisis management requires you to constantly shift gears. You are more likely to overextend that leader crisis mode, causing you maintain an authoritarian leadership style, while making connections at that time is especially important.’
Ilse Van Hove, alumna of applied economics, has been CEO of the Elka Pieterman Group, a trading company specialising in parts and accessories for household appliances, since 2014. Through her leadership style, she tries to encourage her employees to be their best and to challenge them to use their strengths.
‘I think taking the lead was a bit in my genes anyway’, Van Hove says. ‘I always liked to stand in the spotlight: at scouts, at the parents’ association of my school, for neighbourhood functions, etc. So you have to enjoy it in the first place, but on the other hand you can definitely grow into it. Just because your card says you’re in charge doesn’t mean it will really turn out that way, right?’
Van Hove started as a management trainee at Handyman and was given the opportunity to expand the chain in Belgium according to the Dutch model. Later, she became the highest manager of the entire group. ‘In the beginning, I often still thought: “I carry the responsibility, so that’s how it will be’, but along the way I learnt the importance of communicating well, inspiring people and bringing them into your story. Creating a support base is crucial if you want to move forward with your organisation. I find it challenging to achieve things with people. That I happen to be the one with final responsibility is less relevant to me. I consider it a privilege to play this role.’
Along the way I learnt the importance of communicating well, inspiring people and bringing them into your story.
According to Van Hove, it is a pitfall to surround yourself with (or be surrounded by) yes-men. ‘Surround yourself with strong people who make critical comments and want to hold constructive discussions with you.’ During corona times, Van Hove did notice that everything was more under pressure and there was less time and space to engage in lengthy consultations. ‘People only ask for one thing and that is clarity, that in any case you map out the path. We are a family business by origin with a strong framework of values and standards, but at the same time we are a commercial organisation that wants to move forward. We added the will to win to that framework of values. For example, in 2009 we climbed to the top of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with the entire management team to show: we really are going to work together to reach that top.’
Van Hove wrote her master dissertation in 1990 on ‘women and management’: how do you break through that glass ceiling as a woman and successfully combine a career with a family? ‘I then surveyed about eighty female managers. The conclusion? There was one key word to being successful and that was “flexibility”, from both sides. As a woman, you need to take advantage of opportunities in the business world, but you also need a flexible employer who will grant you time off on a Wednesday afternoon or time with the family. My three daughters have a committed mum, and I can see they have that same drive in life. That makes me feel happy.’
Erik Franck is a lecturer for the Master in Nursing and Midwifery of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at UAntwerp. He recognises the ever-increasing importance of self-leadership. ‘You have to learn to set boundaries and stay true to yourself in this complex society. That is not the same as saying no: you have to make choices according to who you are.’ Franck argues that leadership and self-leadership is about creating energy. ‘A leader looks for ways to connect people to the organisation in order to release the energy needed to achieve a goal.’
Self-leadership means managing your own energy. It starts with self-knowledge and knowing what impact you want to have. Self-knowledge does not necessarily mean that you are aware of what happens when you are triggered. Humans are control-oriented by nature and often our behavioural tendency is to maintain short-term control. But the flip side is that, in the long run, that can have the opposite effect. Finally, self-care is important, so you can assess your own process with a certain level of compassion.
Self-leadership is a gradual growth process and that’s totally okay. Small, achievable changes are the ones that make the biggest difference with a lasting effect in the long run.
It seems that self-leadership affects our expectations. For example, in job applications the current generation is more concerned with their feeling with the company, rather than the salary. ‘People are looking much more at “does that fit who I am?”, and that makes the concept of self-leadership increasingly important’, Franck says. Self-leadership can also be learnt. Anyone who wants to change can change. Only this does not happen overnight and it comes with the necessary hurdles. ‘Self-leadership is a gradual growth process and that’s totally okay’, Franck says. ‘Small, achievable changes are the ones that make the biggest difference with a lasting effect in the long run. If you get 1% better every day of the year, a year later you will have improved 37 times.’